Leeds United keen to avert first crisis of Bielsa era

Pablo Hernandez, doubtful starter for Leeds United against Derby County.
Pablo Hernandez, doubtful starter for Leeds United against Derby County.

Friday night’s Elland Road clash with Derby County is shaping up to be Leeds United’s biggest game of the season so far.

While it was always going to be an important game against promotion rivals it has taken on extra significance with the Whites looking to avert a first crisis since Marcelo Bielsa took over.

Back to back Sky Bet Championship defeats for the first time under the Argentine master were followed by a third straight loss, admittedly with a side made up mostly of fringe and academy players, in the FA Cup third round at QPR.

And if that becomes four losses on the trot the alarm bells will be ringing round Elland Road even if they may well still be sitting on top of the table come the end of the weekend’s matches.

Championship winning sides rarely lose four successive games and it would severely dent the players’ confidence for the rest of the campaign and potentially damage the aura that has built round this Leeds team.

There has been a fear factor for some of the teams United have met this season, helping them to accumulate such a healthy points tally at this stage of the campaign.

But maybe the fear is with the Whites this time as they look to avoid the “Leeds falling apart again” song getting louder among opposition fans once more.

With Bielsa and United both having a track record for falling away in the second half of the season nothing less than a convincing display against Derby is likely to silence the doubters.

And that will be no easy task as Derby have improved from a difficult start under manager Frank Lampard to become a side capable of producing as good a football as Leeds.

But if any of the home players are in need of a confidence boost for the game they can always watch again United’s outstanding 4-1 win over the Rams back in August, which put an early marker down for how good the Whites can be.

Bielsa is expecting a much tougher challenge from Derby this time.

He said: “Derby’s not the same team anymore. They are a lot better now as a team.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the same game. We have the conditions to try to win against this.

“We can’t rely on the fact we played against them five months ago. It will not be similar.

“Both teams are very different.”

Leeds’ chances for the game have been boosted by the return of skipper and central defender Liam Cooper, but they will be without injured left-back Barry Douglas and could have to take the field without influential playmaker Pablo Hernandez.

The Spaniard has not been ruled out, but as it stands today is rated doubtful and will not be risked if there would be further danger of damage.

With midfielder Lewis Baker having his loan from Chelsea ended and defender Conor Shaughnessy sent out on loan to Hearts this week United are clearly short on numbers with the possibility of up to 10 players missing for such a crucial match. It will really be a case of Bielsa weaving his magic if they can take all three points.